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Épater la bourgeoisie… whatever.

On the obsolescence of subversion

In political and military terms there are very clear definitions for “subversion” — and equally clear laws to prosecute those who engage in what are considered to be subversive activities. But in the artistic sphere the term has been used in so many different ways as to make its definition virtually impossible; not to mention that what in one milieu would be considered subversive is perhaps something that is taken for granted in another. Thomas Ernst distinguishes subversion in artistic avant-garde discourse as being one of “artistic-processual movement” (Ernst 2008, 19). This is in strong contrast to the reading of subversion in political and military spheres, where it can be understood as a revolutionary challenge to the reigning authority (Ibid., 17–19)

In the artistic, avant-garde discourse of subversion, the ruling order is more or less called into question but no Utopia as a better world is formulated. 1[1. “[I]m künstlerisch-avant-gardistischen Diskurs der Subversion wird Herrschaft generall infrage gestellt und keine Utopie einer bessern Welt formuliert.”] (Ernst 2008, 19)

The goal here is not to establish a definitive conclusion of the term itself, in artistic spheres or beyond, but rather to look at some of the mechanisms of the “life cycle” of subversion and to consider the obstacles it might encounter in the larger musical milieu.

In doing so, we should also keep in mind that the meaning and understanding of the term “subversion” has also evolved since the time of the French Revolution (Ernst 2008, 16), when it was used in reference to activities that had an impact in military and political arenas; only much more recently has it been used in artistic discourse.

The Four Seasons of Subversion (and Empire)

The development of a new musical trend can be represented as a model that to an extent parallels the life cycle of an empire. There are several versions that have been proposed for this in the past century, but essentially we might understand both the political and musical “empire” as having a four-season cycle of:

As a more complex framework, we might consider that a new musical (or more broadly, artistic) or political trend follows a pattern that by and large resembles the following progression — and a range of variants, not to mention varying degrees of overlapping of the individual stages, is certain to be encountered:

For the musical empire, as well as the political empire, the collapse is retroactively foreseeable in the immediately preceding era, which is typically characterized by brilliant decadence before a spectacular descent into darkness and then it crumbles in an instant. Following emergence, growth and maturity comes arrogance and decadance, instability, and finally decline and/or collapse.

During the stages leading up to and including maturity, in order to establish its preeminence and confirm its superiority to that which it insists it is destined to replace, the new musical trend is often implemented as a rule of law by its most articulate or forceful adherents. This serves to legitimize and more strictly define the New Order, and to provide a reference against which all future work will be measured. For example, when the Darmstadt Ferienkurse was transformed from a battleground against the hegemony of the previous musical generation into the comfortable palace of the New Musical Fascists only recently considered to be the revolutionaries, its Age of Decadence entered in full swing, even though it was really still only a nascent ideology — Boulez: “Le roi est mort!” (Schoenberg) Vive le roi! (Boulez: “Moi-même”). Proponents of new and emerging musical trends that were at odds with what Luigi Nono later termed the “Darmstadt School” were met with fierce opposition 2[2. The violence of the rhetoric during the early days of Darmstadt has perhaps never been so clearly encapsulated as in Boulez’ well known 1952 declaration that “any musician who has not experienced… the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS.”], and this may in fact have contributed, among other things, to the radicalization of these new challenges to the youthful musical empire and helped clarify the identity and strength of conviction of both camps. Nowhere is clarity of thought and the organizational faculty in human beings as strong as when it is faced with questions of its very existence.

The Rise and Fall of Subversion

While there may be external opposition to the development and establishment of the new musical trend, there are also crucial internal “life cycle” processes that pose a significant challenge to its subversive potential. These processes constitute what could be understood as completely natural developmental patterns that are encountered throughout and perhaps inherent to its life cycle.

Diversification and the Dissolution of Boundary

The slow erosion of the boundaries of a given artistic practice by the practices of its more progressive adherents should be considered a textbook definition of subversion. However, the practice of dismantling boundaries between artistic practices — once a novel practice that spawned provocative and exciting new art forms — has now itself become established as a convention in most areas of musical practice. There is an ever-increasing exploration of hybrid forms, cross-medium, cross-disciplinary and cross-æsthetic projects and as should be expected, in parallel to these developments, the clear divisions of individual musical practice and divisive boundaries that once existed between them have dissolved and disappeared. As more and more hybrid practices emerge and evolve that defy clear categorization according to a widely agreed-upon table of conventions, the categories themselves either cease to exist, or they are so incapable of providing any real or comprehensive perspective on the greatly divergent practices they are meant to represent that they would best be ignored altogether.

All of this questioning, exploration, evolution has indeed led to and encouraged the emergence of a plethora of new practices, which are in principle, from a musical standpoint, fantastic developments. But precisely because of these many changes, it is increasingly impossible to “pigeon-hole” musical practices in order to clearly delineate practice, milieu and meaning — not that this prevents many from trying, as can be seen in so many posters and festival programmes attempting to segregate and package musical practices into themes, focus topics and more.

Nor has the definition of “music” itself escaped such transformational processes. In 1972, Cornelius Cardew championed a broadening, or rather a democratization of the definition of the term through the actions of those who actually practiced the activity:

The word music and its derivatives are here not understood to refer exclusively to sound and related phenomena (hearing, etc.). What they do refer to is flexible and depends entirely on the members of the Scratch Orchestra. (Cardew 2004, 234)

An entirely different form of rejection of the existing limitations of terminology was taken by the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, who simply avoided using the term “music” in its Bylaws 3[3. Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC) By-laws (March 1987, rev. 1995, 2012, 2013).]. Instead, the term “electroacoustics” was used to inclusively refer to all practices sound, sonic and musical, without specifying whether these practices involved a live “musician” or not.

Self-Segregation and Conformity Within the Milieu

If a tree subverts in the forest and noone is there to see it but other similarly subversive trees, is there subversion at work? When supposed subversion becomes normalcy, it no longer exists.

As a musical community diversifies and splinters into innumerable subgroups, sub-subgroups, post-sub-subgroups and beyond, the need quickly arises for dedicated subcommunities of practitioners, audience and institutions to support each of these emergent practices. The growing trends develop a “market” and the community and establishment eventually grow to absorb and promote these practices.

Strangely enough, despite, or in fact as a result of this rampant diversification, musician and venue have perhaps never been so perfectly aligned as today. Specialized venues are found in all communities and the musicians that sympathize with the practices presented there also tend to associate with these venues professionally. There are mutually beneficial reasons for this but it also means that musicians and audience members from greatly diverging milieux will only under exceptional circumstances ever come into contact with one another. The blue-rinsed crew attending a performance of a Mahler symphony is just as unlikely to find themselves in their suits and evening gowns and sickly sweet perfumes rubbing up against the leather-jacketed crowd in a dark, dingy, sweaty and claustrophobic underground club gig as the blue-dyed crew from a punk gig are to be found hanging out in the A section of the Berlin Philharmonie eagerly awaiting the start of the Funeral March of the Third Symphony4[4. Obviously the reasons for this are many and complex — social, economic, moral, political, philosophical… — but discussion of such issues lies outside of the scope of the present article.]

Each performance venue develops its identity through a relatively clear choice of programming that is highly unlikely to vary from one year to the next. The programming of a particular venue might well be diverse, but will still have clearly drawn limits: the Philharmonie is not going to host a concert by Canadian hardcore punk band DOA, even if the group would agree to play there. Even between communities or parallel subcultures that some might imagine to be mutually compatible — at least from a socio-political standpoint, even if æsthetically divergent — such distinctions can be found. Such was the case when, for example, the 2:13 Club was founded in 1996 in order to provide a platform for a more “more reflective or conceptual approaches to music-making” within the Berlin improv scene than was provided by Anorak (Blažanović 2011, 40). The cycle of association between venue and type of performers continues and the identity of both the milieu and the artists forming this milieu is cyclicly strengthened through personal affiliations, reinforced through institutional recognition and clarified through artistic practice.

In parallel to this segregation and self-ghettoization of community, the alignment of values within each artistic milieu is reinforced through associations as trivial as “specific lifestyle… clothing and manner of speech,” not to mention hairdo, jewellery / piercings and, less commonly discussed but certainly central to the formation and recognition of group identity, body language and manners. For an experimental or alternative music community, the intention of a “distinctive collective identity” is in part to position itself opposite or in conflict with a dominant society or majority (Ernst 2008, 23). From the perspective of musical practice, such associative tendencies to serve the formation of identity can be seen in the adoption, by the broader milieu, of new and experimental techniques introduced by one or more of its members — the techniques themselves will also be seen to follow the life cycle described above: emergence, adoption, maturity, decadence.

Speaking of the tendency of integration in the experimental music scene in Berlin in the late-1990s and early 2000s, Dietrich Eichmann noted that “[a] number of musicians that came to Berlin from other cities and countries… seem to simply conform to Reductionism” (Eichmann, cited in Blažanović 2011, 31). 5[5. “Reductionism” was a term used to refer to the largely improvised music created in Berlin at the time. For more on the subject, see Marta Blažanović, “Echtzeitmusik: The social and discursive contexts of a contemporary musical scene” (esp. Chapter 3.4 “Radical Æsthetics: The Berlin Reductionism”), unpublished doctoral thesis (Humboldt University, 2012). Available on Humboldt University’s website [PDF].] Because the establishment — and here Marta Blažanović is talking about the experimental scene, not the academic-education industry and its by-products — has “a kind of reputation and authority,” there is a tendency to gravitate towards these to such an extent that:

[E]vents with certain musicians, curated by certain curators, or happening in certain venues are more attractive [italics mine] to the knowing audience than to some other, newer, or anonymous ones. (Blažanović 2011, 32)

The intent to sympathize with and support a community through integrative association can therefore be seen to serve the slow neutralization of the diversity that may once have been notable within a given milieu before it splintered into a range of parallel practices, each having their own increasingly stringent protocols. The greater the diversification of practices the more clearly defined the categories of “fringe groups” opposing the cultural hegemony become, the greater the risk that diversity is not actually apparent within the categories themselves. Any potential conflict that might encourage some to subvert the institution is effectively eliminated before it even arises.

Returning to the model describing the evolution of a once subversive tendency, the perhaps inevitable stage of conformity can be understood to simultaneously represent maturity and decay. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is simply a natural part of the cycle. Perhaps more important, or at least more interesting, than to contemplate and lament this “loss” would be to join Rolf Schwendter in considering the extent to which is it possible for a subculture to exploit its revolutionary potential before conformity sets in (Shwendter, cited in Ernst 2008, 25).

Absorption by the “Establishment” — Subversion as Commodity

The frontiers of the musical establishment are constantly in flux according to the practices of the day and the interests of both the local public and the people and institutions responsible for programming. In circles that favour contemporary and experimental practices, “subversion” is in fact taken for granted — the audience wants, even expects to be exposed to new pieces, new ideas, new techniques and new æsthetics, that challenge and broaden their understanding of the practices of a particular milieu.

“Das ist underground” — Seen on a billboard in Berlin-Friedrichshain in February 2015.

Soon after a new trend, a new face or a new practice emerges — or is legitimized by being programmed somewhere else — it is important for the contemporary music establishment (festivals, curators, etc.) to express or, more importantly, to prove their progressiveness by incorporating these emerging “avant-garde” practices into their existing repertoire. In so broadening its interests, the establishment appears to act in the service of the community, and what was only recently a “fringe” group or practice is already the next year integrated as part of its repertoire. We as consumers of art put our trust in the programming of one or another of these institutions or groups or individuals and know ahead of time more or less what to expect at the next festival, concert or event presented by said establishment. We are very rarely surprised, let alone shocked, by what we hear or see at the events we attend that are sanctioned by the institutions whose programming choices we ourselves have chosen to support and, by extension, sanction.

These ephemerally “subversive” activities are exposed to and absorbed by the mainstream and become part of its language, and with each subsequent exposure seem less and less foreign, challenging, provocative. That which once would have been considered subversive becomes an extension of the realm of practice as society struggles with, adjusts to, becomes familiar with and finally adopts and insists on the new behaviours and perspectives. This transition happens very quickly today.

Pat, I’d like to Buy Some Subversion

Around five a.m. one morning, a friend and I came across a guy spraying a main street in Old Montréal and found that his work closely resembled some other street art we had seen that we found clever and witty. We approached him, it was indeed the same artist, and we chatted for a bit down along the port. After a short time, he suddenly said, “Hey guys, I need to get back to work, I have to finish by six.” It turns out he had a deadline: he had been hired by the museum across the street and part of the verbal contract (of course the museum would not put it in writing!) he had with them was that by six a.m. he would be finished doing what in another context would have been illegal. Punch in, punch out. It’s a wrap. “Ok guys, break’s over, back to work!”

This is only one of many examples showing the appropriation, exploitation and integration of “subversive” practices by the mainstream. Another obvious example is the hiring of graffiti artists to do a mural for or to paint the storefront shutters of a trendy boutique or sports store. A classic example of the establishment’s absorption of underground or subversive practices is found in the graphic design used in advertising and publication industries, which has been shown to have borrowed much from the design of DADA posters and pamphlets. The Dadaists had exploited and subverted the advertising industry through the creation of collages using cutouts of magazine ads and articles. 6[6. See, in particular, Hannah Höch’s 1919 work Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser DADA durch die letzte weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands [Cut with a Kitchen Knife DADA through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Culture Era of Germany], showing Höch’s highly critical stance towards the manner of representation of women in media.] But some time later, the work of the subversives got re-subverted and it is now considered an integral part of the history and development of the graphic design industry.

Subversion Cannot Exist Without Clear Boundaries

Subversion has never implied a complete dismantling and replacement of the existing regime (musical or political); the subversive faction would certainly want to take advantage of existing infrastructure as much as possible. Despite the “overthowing” of la vielle garde in the early days of Darmstadt, all that composers of the time challenged was the language: the existing social structure — the relationship between composer, musician, conductor and public — remained in place 7[7. I have discussed this issue at length in “Practicalities of a Socio-Musical Utopia: Degrees of ‘freedom’ in mathias spahlinger’s ‘doppelt bejaht’ (studies for orchestra without conductor),” Nutida Musik 3–4 (June 2013), trans. Andreas Engström. The original English version is available on my website.]; combinations of the instruments musicians played may have changed but not the instruments themselves, nor the early and fundamental training required to play them; existing concert halls weren’t torn down and replaced with new buildings with acoustics and seating arrangements that reflected these radical changes in musical taste and intent. 8[8. Another of Boulez’s famously provocative statements contributed to him being held for questioning by the Swiss authorities in November 2001 on suspected terrorist activities. Certainly noone in the New Music milieu believed he literally meant we should literally “blow up the opera houses” in his 1967 interview with Der Spiegel; especially given the course his later career took.] The actual subversive impact on the “old regime” was certainly significant on an æsthetic level, but most of the existing mechanisms of socio-political musical practice remained firmly in place.

In contrast to the immediate post-war era of Darmstadt, or the early Dada performances in Zurich, or even Fluxus events and happenings in the 1960s, today very few people — if anyone at all — are surprised, let alone shocked, by the music they hear in the venue they entered willfully and consciously. Through their own interests, through exposure to various presentation formats (festivals, concert series) they have sanctioned and whose opinions they trust, through their own research or through files and online media shared with them by other users, the audience members arrive in the performance venue increasingly informed about a wide range of practices, and there is less and less that surprises them. The first introduction they have to a particular musical act today may very well be though an online source rather than the physical performance they witness in a concert hall or club.

When we consider the practices that occur amongst members of the same milieu, subversion is not likely to happen, let alone provocation or even scandal 9[9. The relation between subversion, provocation and scandal in the arts is too complex to be addressed in the present form of this article…] — at least in the musical avant-garde, where — to use a popular banalism — “we’ve heard it all before.” More importantly, what is scandalous for one is a delight for another; all is dependent on context and the experiences and interests of the audience members. Subversion requires the existence of firm and inflexible boundaries for it to even exist, otherwise it can have no meaningful purpose. Had the “musical regime” that the early Darmstadters sought to overthrow not been so entrenched, the integral serial composers very possibly might not have had a raison-d’être. But today, on the one hand, there is a degree of diversity in musical practice that is unprecedented — everyone can find their “niche” — and on the other hand, venue, musician and audience are so perfectly aligned in their concerns, pursuits and interests that artists today work in a terribly comfortable environment (or niche!); there is virtually no room for subversion in such a context.

But in general, something that might be considered to be subversive to some members of some circles today “hardly encounters any obvious radical social opposition” (Martin Hoffman cited in Ernst 2008, 11). This is certainly the case in the contexts discussed above, where the convergence of self-segregation within the milieu and an establishment that absorbs every new tendency continually softens the impact a potentially subversive or provocative act might have on the listener.

Russian punk band Pussy Riot offer a fantastic counterexample to the problem of alignment of musician, audience and venue, but the group is by far a rare exception rather than a rule. Where the musical avant-garde today is largely “preaching to the converted” inside the protective confines of its holy trinity of musician, audience and venue, Pussy Riot has done several guerilla performances in venues where their presence was very unwelcome and incompatible. For example, inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour for a “punk prayer” protesting the lack of separation of Church and State. They too are aware of the dichotomy whereby musician and venue are so aligned as to no longer be able to provoke subversion, pointing out that other feminist, politically oriented punk bands such as “Bikini Kill performed at specific music venues, while we hold unsanctioned concerts.” For the risks they have taken in staging such subversive acts its members have served prison sentences and been publicly assaulted, by security forces as well as by other Russian citizens. 10[10. Several members of the band served jail time for “hooliganism motiivated by religious hatred” because of the unauthorized performance and video taping of their song Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (Moscow), a protest against the Church’s support of Putin’s 2012 election campaign. Band members were also physically assaulted with whips and pepper spray by security forces at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics for a performance/taping of Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland. (Wikipedia)]


It is not just the “establishment” that subverts and corrupts the very idea of subversion, through its theme-oriented festival and concert series programming, the need to use and define titles to describe artistic practice, etc. — the members of the various musical milieux themselves also contribute to this process through association and affiliation, breaking down previously existing æsthetic boundaries. It is the inherent evolutionary process, the life cycle of every new musical trend, that leads inevitably to the dissolution of the subversive element it may contain. No society can remain in a constant state of revolution; at some point, emergent practices need to settle into a more stable state in order to develop a more complex identity. As with the diversity of the milieux, the diversification of the idea of subversion serves to simultaneously evolve and dissolve the very identity of the concept.

Maybe we should accept the idea that subversion today in the realm of music — or sound art, or whatever you care to call it — simply does not exist anymore. At least not in its traditional form. It has, like the life cycle of the new musical trend, transformed into something different; the concept of “subversion” itself has evolved. For better or worse, subversion today is no longer the violent overthrowing of established and rigid practices but that internal force that drives artists to insist on progression, evolution, maturity in musical practices. Subversion does not necessarily have the same degree of socio-political impact it might have had in the past, but that is not a loss, it is simply an indication of another era, another perspective. This issue’s Guest Editor, Karin Weissenbrunner sees artists working in experimental areas subject to a pressure to be subversive. Antony Maubert has also pointed out this problem, that artists today have a responsibility to subvert the milieu they work in. Simon Reynolds puts the responsibility on the individual, on the first-person rather than a second- and third-person perspective. His solution to “The Subversive Fallacy”? “Forget subversion. The point is self-subversion, overthrowing the power structure in your head. The enemy is the mind’s tendency to systematize” (Reynolds 2004, 56–57). Subversion has arrived, evolved, eroded and its decay (memories, recollection) is that which continues to provide nourishment for the many complementary and divergent musical practices encountered today. It is maybe no longer a tangible and measurable action, but rather an ephemeral idea, a memory, that continues to drive artists to push the artistic and socio-political limits of what their practice is presently capable of doing.


Blažanović, Marta. “Social History of the Echtzeitmusik Scene in Berlin.” In Echtzeitmusik: Selbstbestimmung einer Szene / Self-Defining a Scene. Edited by Burkhard Beins, Christian Kesten, Gisela Nauck and Andrea Neumann. Hofheim, Germany: Wolke Verlag, 2011.

Cardew, Cornelius. “A Scratch Orchestra: Draft Constitution.” In Audio Culture: Readings in modern music. Edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. New York NY: Continuum, 2004, pp. 234–238.

Ernst, Thomas. “Subversion — eine kleine Diskursanalyse eines vielfältigen Begriffs.” Psychologie und Gesellschaft 32/4 (2008), pp. 9–34.

Reynolds, Simon. “Noise.” In Audio Culture: Readings in modern music. Edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. New York NY: Continuum, 2004, pp. 55–58.

Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York NY: Picador, 2007.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Pussy Riot.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. [Last accessed 16 March 2015]

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